The Iran Nuclear Deal

Iran’s Nuclear Program

Iran’s nuclear capabilities have been the subject of global hand-wringing for more than two decades. While Iran’s leaders long insisted the country was not building nuclear weapons, its enrichment of uranium and history of deception created deep mistrust. In 2015, after more than two years of talks and threats to bomb the country’s facilities, Iran and world powers reached a deal that limited the Islamic Republic’s nuclear work in exchange for relief from economic sanctions that had cut off oil exports and hobbled its economy. After the U.S. under President Donald Trump withdrew from the pact and reinstated sanctions in 2018, Iran began violating the deal’s restrictions and, in early 2020, said it would no longer observe limits on the amount of nuclear material it produces. President Joe Biden, who replaced Trump in 2021, has said he would return the U.S. to the deal if Iran resumes complying with it, a condition Iran says it will only agree to after sanctions have been lifted. 

The Situation

Concerns about Iran’s intentions escalated in early April when the country vowed to ramp up its uranium enrichment to close to weapons grade. The announcement came in response to the sabotage of one of its leading atomic facilities in advance of talks in Austria aimed at reviving the 2015 deal. The attack was widely attributed to Israel, which opposes the accord on the grounds that it’s insufficiently tough on Iran. Iran had already upped the ante in mid-February, by notifying the International Atomic Energy Agency that it would stop allowing the group’s monitors to conduct snap inspections. The effort to return the U.S. and Iran to compliance is complicated by the fact that both sides insist the other goes first, creating a sequencing problem. The presidential election in Iran in June is also a potential snag. The field is set to be dominated by conservatives whose influence has surged since the U.S. abandoned the deal, which President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, had sold to Iranians as a ticket to economic prosperity. Instead, the tighter U.S. sanctions provoked an economic contraction. A hardline successor to Rouhani may not be willing to simply reactivate the pact as is. 

The Iran Nuclear Deal

The Background

Iranian statements and international contacts with Pakistani scientists prompted the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to warn in 1992 that the Persian Gulf country could develop a nuclear weapon. While Iran reaffirmed its commitment to the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it wanted the country’s “right” to enrich uranium recognized before it made concessions. A breakthrough came after Iran elected Rouhani president in 2013. The 2015 deal he made recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and Iran was allowed to keep 5,000 centrifuges to separate the uranium-235 isotope needed to induce a fission chain reaction. But Iran agreed that for 15 years it would not refine the metal to more than 3.7% enrichment — the level needed to fuel nuclear power plants — and would limit its enriched-uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms, or 3% of the amount it held in May 2015. The International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Iran eliminated its inventory of 20%-enriched uranium, which can be used to make medical isotopes and to power research reactors but could also be purified to weapons-grade material at short notice. Inspectors also confirmed that Iran destroyed a reactor capable of producing plutonium. U.S. officials under then-President Barack Obama estimated that the pact extended the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a bomb from a few months to a year. 

The Iran Nuclear Deal

The Argument

Trump administration officials said the 2015 deal emboldened Iranian activities that destabilize the Middle East and didn’t adequately address Iran’s ballistic missile program. Some critics of the accord say Iran can’t be trusted to make any fissile material, whether for energy, medicine or bombs. Like other enriching countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan and South Africa, the technology gives Iran the ability to pursue nuclear weapons should it choose to break its commitments. Supporters of the deal say Iran would never agree to abandon enrichment entirely and that decades’ worth of sanctions failed to stop its nuclear program. Keeping an enrichment capability was important to Iran, for reasons of national pride and because it was previously denied access to uranium on world markets. Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has said that if Iran returns to compliance with the deal, the U.S. would seek to build a “longer and stronger” agreement to address what he called “deeply problematic” issues. However, the Iranians are adamantly opposed to talks aimed at expanding the scope of the deal before the original bargain is upheld. They’ve said they won’t be drawn into missile talks because the arms are one of the few effective deterrents they have in a region with many U.S. bases and states equipped with military technology far more advanced than theirs.

The Reference Shelf

  • Related QuickTakes on U.S.-Iran tensions, how close Iran might be to a nuclear bomb, and Iran’s proxy network
  • Text of the July 2015 agreement and a New York Times graphic on the outcome.
  • Bloomberg published a timeline about the country’s history of deception.
  • Carnegie Endowment for International Peace April 2013 report estimating the costs and risks of Iran’s nuclear program.

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